Tombolo: The Thin Strip That Binds Us Together

by Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Until a few days ago, we were exiled in Montenegro. It’s a place where astonishing, mountainous cliffs tumble into the sea, interrupted by a string of pink, pebbly beaches that face Italy across the Adriatic Sea. The sunsets kept on giving.

We ended up there because Mark’s bid for a longer-term stay in Slovakia is wrapped up in bureaucratic delays that forced us to leave the Schengen area for 90 days. Montenegro beckoned, with its lower prices and relatively warm winter, a sharp contrast to last year in Siberia. And all of a sudden we were again distant from our friends in Central and Eastern Europe, in the U.S., in Siberia, and elsewhere. Getting work done but feeling alone.

And it got us thinking about staying connected. The last few years have taken us in so many unexpected directions. We sold our house in the U.S. and lived one year each in Ukraine and Siberia. We spent significant time in Slovakia and Central Europe, and now we’re unexpectedly experiencing Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our work also took turns in new directions, including more writing, more abstraction, more video, and original music from scientific data. It was simultaneously stimulating and intriguing, but also disruptive and lonely.

And now comes a new twist: we are compelled to distance ourselves from others because of the serious health threat that is sweeping across the world.

Of course it’s not as hard as in the past to stay connected, given the ability to work online and video chats. But connecting that way is not only second best, it somehow becomes more difficult as distance increases. And I need not go in depth here on the flaws in our maddeningly frustrating, exploitative and immoral social media platforms. 

In our opening blog post, we used the metaphor of wolves howling in the night as a way of thinking about the urgency of the moment and the need for people to join and react vocally. Of course howling is not enough. The howling of wolves is an incitement to group action. And that’s what we need – stronger communities that join together in a movement for change and revitalization.

There are many examples of people who are entrepreneurially leading the way, with meaningful projects and outstanding outcomes – people who deserve our support and encouragement. But even if we’re committing ourselves to socially beneficial outcomes at this time of oversized threats to democracy, the environment, and human dignity, it often feels like we’re each marooned on our own islands without a true connection to others at a time when we desperately need one. 

That’s when we saw it. Along the Montenegrin coast, rocky formations alternate with serene beaches, innumerable small islands. But there’s one exception – Sveti Stefan, a tiny “tied island” connected to the mainland. We recently learned (or re-learned, I’m not sure) the meaning of the word “tombolo,” which is a sand bar connecting an island to the mainland or to another island. Sveti Stefan is connected to the world by a tombolo.

We hope our new website will go well beyond a simple presentation of what we’ve created so others can “enjoy” it. Through the Tombolo Blog, with its ability to create dialogue and reach out to others directly, we’re hoping to initiate an authentic conversation – and build ties between people that will help us bridge through an increasingly bleak period of U.S. and world history. 

On some level, we recently realized, our newest projects are all about loss or the threat of loss, whether it’s the environment, our loved ones, or of memory itself (see Featured Projects). And those are the threats that all of us are facing at this moment in time: loss of life, of love, of truth, of the belief in a better future. 

So fundamentally, this is a time when we need meaningful connections with others, even if it is just a thin strip of sand. It is a time when the voices of artists and their allies, speaking the truth, need to be joined together into something larger. It’s a time when the individual ego needs to be kept in check so that the good of the community will take priority.

Even in this exceptionally strange moment of “social distancing,” let’s build a bridge to each other. Let’s build something larger than ourselves. Let’s build a tombolo.

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